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Summary:

BuzzFeed’s viral-first approach is shaking up news and political reporting. Now, it has set its sights on the last bastion of traditional print journalism — long form essays. Can it compete?

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While most forms of print are being swept away in the march to digital journalism, long-form content is a hold out. For now, the thoughtful and well-polished essay has only one natural home — the magazine.

But here comes BuzzFeed. The viral media site, which has already disrupted news and political reporting, thinks it can apply its super-sharable formula to 10,000-word essays.

For the unfamiliar, BuzzFeed made its name with internet fluff (a “cat that look like Rembrandt“) but has lately been powering up with high-profile hires like Politico’s Ben Smith and Rolling Stone’s senior editor, Doree Shafrir. The latter, as BuzzFeed’s executive editor, is now hiring a long-form editor.

“There’s opportunities to do really compelling jorunalism that originates in online form,” said Shafrir in a recent phone interview. “Right now a lot of the best long-form stuff originates in print and we’d like to change that.”

And there’s the rub. While other forms of journalism were ripe to be disrupted by BuzzFeed’s technology-driven platforms, the company will have a harder time taking on the likes of the New Yorker. Consider that there are two good reasons why the most celebrated long form journalism still starts in print: simplicity and status.

The first relates to readers. Long-form reading is a relaxing, immersive experience best enjoyed on the couch. The simple elegance of a print magazine continues to be the superior way to deliver that experience. As for status, a print appearance still remains the pinnacle of prestige for writers – to many would-be Nabokovs, a BuzzFeed appearance just doesn’t carry the same cachet as seeing their name on the cover of The Atlantic.

Shafrir, needless to say, is not fazed by these obstacles to BuzzFeed’s long-form ambitions. She points to the viral success of her own recent 7,000-word opus “Can you die from a nightmare?” as evidence that BuzzFeed is a good vehicle for long-form content. She adds that future long pieces on the site will focus on both universal themes (like sleep and night terrors) that everyone likes to share and also on pieces that will generate intense interest among specific communities — say surfers or parents of autistic children.

As for the natural appeal of magazines to both readers and writers, larger forces are tilting in BuzzFeed’s favor. One is the ever-improving quality of e-readers and tablets which are becoming almost as light and elegant as a New Yorker page. This will appeal to the couch crowd as will BuzzFeed’s decision to insert a “read it later” button right into the stories. You can see how this works here (the reader simply chooses her favorite service from a drop-down menu and the story is zapped to a reading list where it can be read anywhere later on):

And finally, a younger generation of writers are less likely than their forebears to have print prejudices. As this astute Poynter piece points out, newer literary sites like The Awl are finding success by rejecting the convention that online writing should be kept to 800 words or less.

The point is that, the evolution may be slower, but long form’s move to digital sites is as inexorable as that of other journalistic genres.

(Image by  cosma via Shutterstock)

  1. I’ll be curious to see how this develops. Whether or not buzzfeed will incorporate other media into long-form feature essays posted electronically is interesting me. Will future digital essay include text hyperlinks, YouTube links or links to other articles?

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